There’s a scene in “Selma” where Coretta Scott King (played by Carmen Ejogo) stares into the eyes of her cheating husband Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo) after listening to an alleged recording of his sexual romp with another woman. “I know … I know what you sound like,” she says before an uncomfortable silence falls the room. It’s an emotionally grueling scene that confronts MLK’s alleged infidelities. Yeah, “Selma” takes it there.
Carmen Ejogo has starred in films like “Sparkle” and “The Purge: Anarchy,” but you’ve never seen the British beauty like this before. Her portrayal of Coretta Scott King is Oscar-buzz worthy. We’d be surprised if she doesn’t land a nomination.
Carmen embodies Coretta Scott King’s poise, soft demeanor and put togetherness in a way that feels surreal. “It was a real joy because I knew I was doing a service to Coretta by giving her flesh and real dimension instead of this 2-dimensional icon that we only know her as,” Carmen revealed during our candid chat. And that she did.
With “Selma” in limited theaters today, the rising star opened up to us about working with Ava Duvernay, getting into character for the role of a lifetime and the most impactful moment of filming “Selma.”
Get into our interview below:
What what is like working with Ava Duvernay?
Carmen Ejogo: To work with Ava was really, really fascinating. I found her to be such a visionary. She was so clear about what she wanted. There was such clear intentions in how she approached this film. As a woman director, I don’t really like to describe her like that. She’s really just a great director and she can stand up to any guy I ever worked with, but there is something specific she brings that is specifically female. There’s a nurturing quality that was definitely there on set. There was a lot more hugging and touching than I would have done with any male director, for sure. Beyond that, she was also way more interested in getting up close and personal about these characters. There was a slightly feminine quality in that approach. And seriously, she really was like looking out for my hair and makeup.
How did you approach the scene in the film that addresses Martin’s alleged infidelities?
Carmen Ejogo: At the top of that scene there’s these pauses and moments before she responds to the tape. Ava’s brilliant in that she really understands the way people talk in real like about real stuff when it’s really going down. You see most Hollywood films and you kind of know when the response is coming back and there’s a timing in it all that’s predictable. Ava gave such breath to these scenes and was really willing to let them stretch so that pause in the end between her asking that question and him answering was so uncomfortable.
Ava Duvernay has such a way of incorporating human nature into her work. How your artistry mix?
Carmen Ejogo: It’s a meeting of minds. I think she’s smart enough to know my work before we get into the room. I know her work. I know what she does best, she knows what I do best. So we’re not really that far from each other anyway. On my best days I’m working in-sync with that kind of approach to directing because that kind of approach is kind of unusual — when you are really about the real human nature of people. But that’s what I’m into — the external life that doesn’t match the internal life of a person fascinates me. When you have someone who is acting a certain way but is actually something else inside. Coretta was totally that person. She had this veneer of makeup and expectation that she bought into. But inside was this progressive feminist, this intellectual, artist musician. She was all these other things that never got to come out.
How did you react to the jarring church bombing scene?
Carmen Ejogo: I am a mother of a daughter who’s nine. I cried immediately after that scene. I didn’t know it was happening, I wasn’t there when they filmed it. That was the first visceral reaction I had. And Ava is so smart because that moment in Birmingham, with those little girls, is apart of the story of voting rights but…not really. But she put you in a certain head space that made you understand the continuum of history and made you understand where these people’s heads were at before we even arrive in Selma. Before we show up in Selma you know why these people are so motivated.
Do you think “Selma” will take home an Oscar?
Carmen Ejogo: When we were making this film, I was like Ava is going all the way with this. How could she not? This is zeitgeist stuff. This movie is hitting a nerve. And this isn’t just about what’s happening in the streets of New York and the marches and so on. It is obviously so connected and converging but this story for me is universal. This is about people who are fighting for worker’s rights in Bangladesh or people on the streets of Iran or Hong Kong…the Ukraine. That is happening everywhere in some form or fashion whether it is an issue of race or an issue of suppression by religion. Whatever the issue is it’s ultimately about the little man fighting the authority. There’s something happening globally where people are realizing we have more power when we get together and figure out a strategy.
What was the most impactful moment of filming “Selma?”
Carmen Ejogo: Definitely the scene where I am confronting [Martin] about infidelity. It was the last scene I filmed in the movie and everything until that point and everything after that point in the film is about composure and that’s the moment in the movie when Coretta gets her chance to let it be known just what kind of sacrifice she’s had to make to stay composed for this man and this family. So to let that all out at the end of filming, it was a real joy because I knew I was doing a service to Coretta by giving her flesh and real dimension instead of this 2-dimensional icon that we only know her as. I also knew I was honoring Ava’s intention with this film because that scene is so pivotal not just for the relationship between Martin and Coretta. It really represents what the whole movie it about. Also, watching the bloody Sunday moments. I wasn’t in it, but watching people who had actually been there, in the day in 1965, was also another visceral experience.
Watch the “Selma” trailer below
Go see “Selma” in theaters today!